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Kellyanne Conway and the Problems With Donald Trump’s Playbook

The White House counselor is blaming her retweet of a white nationalist on a hacker, just one more symptom of how the administration operates

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway says she does not know who can log on to her Twitter account. “I don’t know who had access to my account,” Conway told BuzzFeed on Tuesday when the outlet asked why she had retweeted and replied “love you back” to a Twitter user with the hashtags “#WhiteIdentity” and “#Nationalist” in its bio. Conway said she denounced “whoever it is,” implying that her account may have been breached by an unknown, white-nationalism-loving intruder. “It will be immediately deleted. Everybody makes mistakes,” she continued.

Conway — or whoever else has access to her account — has since deleted the tweet. But we should not trust the narrative she is peddling. Conway has a troubled relationship with facts — this is a matter of public record. Conway has become an unreliable narrator of the Trump administration. Wednesday, MSNBC’s Morning Joe, whose hosts have had a long, public, and frequently chummy relationship with Trump, deemed Conway too unreliable to invite onto their show. To accept her statement about her Twitter account in good faith — one in which she believes and wishes to convey her belief that her account may have been hijacked by an outside party — is to operate from a position of optimism that benefits no one but Conway.

Rather than make an announcement about the hacking of one of his highest-ranking advisers, President Trump chose to finally follow Conway on Twitter on Tuesday. It was a public approval of a job done to his specifications.

The news cycle now moves at a pace I can only describe as a never-ending nightmare sprint, and the same day as Conway’s Twitter debacle, the U.S. Office of Government Ethics recommended that the White House consider disciplining Conway for using her position of power to hawk Ivanka Trump’s merchandise. The incidences of kleptocracy and supposed hacking are not directly related, but Conway’s Twitter snafu might get lost amid the turmoil. And we shouldn’t overlook it, because it’s instructive. Conway would rather suggest she was hacked than cop to failing to read a Twitter bio before retweeting a random user. And this demonstrates how, in the Trump White House, the most unforgivable blunder is not the act itself, but accepting blame for committing that act.

If Conway’s Twitter account was actually breached, it was a security threat requiring immediate attention from the White House. President Trump’s tweets can rive Wall Street and provoke geopolitical chaos; while the activity on Conway’s Twitter account is less consequential or observed, if @KellyannePolls were to tweet to her 1 million followers that the president had nationalized golf courses or annexed Canada, it could stir international and economic relations. It’s possible that Conway would rather attempt to convince the public that she had allowed herself to be vulnerable in this way than own up to a mistake.

Throughout the campaign, Donald Trump painted Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as the height of political irresponsibility, calling the controversy “bigger than Watergate.” Yet his White House is so reckless in its approach to both tech security and transparency that Clinton’s bad behavior seems quaint now. After all, Trump senior staffers, including Conway, Jared Kushner, Sean Spicer, and Steve Bannon, were reportedly still using private email addresses after the inauguration. President Trump sat in a dining room at his Mar-a-Lago resort as aides shone the lights from their internet-connected phones on official documents regarding North Korea. Lax Twitter settings exposed the email addresses of senior staffers. And Trump continues to tweet from an insecure Android phone. This administration appears enormously vulnerable to digital attack while appearing not to care about that vulnerability.

Last week, Axios reported that members of the Trump administration have taken to using an encrypted messaging app called Confide, which deletes messages by default after they’ve been read. This week, in a piece detailing disorganization in the White House, The Washington Post also reported that Trump staffers are using the app. “Staffers, meanwhile, are so fearful of being accused of talking to the media that some have resorted to a secret chat app — Confide — that erases messages as soon as they’re read,” the Post wrote. If these staffers are using Confide to discuss official White House business, they would be breaking the law by violating the Presidential Records Act. Since the records disappear and no one is talking on the record, we have no way of knowing what the staffers are discussing, so we do not know if they are breaking the law. But I do believe they would rather skirt the Presidential Records Act than be caught admitting White House weaknesses, because this administration has been habitually cavalier about security — and apoplectic about disloyal leakers.

In Trump’s view, horrid digital hygiene is a venial sin, but assigning and accepting culpability for bad moves is worth banishment. Remember, the White House knew that former national security adviser Michael Flynn had misled Vice President Mike Pence about his communications with Russia before Flynn resigned. Flynn resigned only after he’d been caught. Trump, it appears, does not care about carelessness. He cares about getting pinned. This does not excuse Conway’s carelessness — but falsehoods and evasiveness are part of her boss’s playbook.

Expect more of this. And in addition to that, maybe a real hacking scandal — as long as digital security is treated as an excuse rather than a threat in the Trump White House.